Tagged: GREECE

Greece in Peril Again

I spent some time traveling Eastern Europe before the Berlin Wall came down. I have many vivid memories of my trips, such as the very low-tech cars they all were so proud of. But I was also impressed with some things, like the breakfast on the overnight train through East Germany – a gourmet experience you could not even get in first-class intercontinental flights at that time. Or the beauty of Prag and Budapest, two of Europe’s most prominent, historic cities.

Perhaps the most painful experience was the sense of perennial economic stagnation. It was almost as though they all lived in a 1950s time capsule, from the enormous, inefficient and highly polluting industrial “combinates” to the design and quality of furniture and home electronics (to the extent it even existed).

Children grew up to the same standard of living that their parents experienced. And their children had nothing more optimistic to look forward to.

Fast forward a quarter century. The Great Recession is hurricaning its way through the European economy. Panic-driven tax increases, combined with spending cuts designed not to shrink government, but to preserve the welfare state, add insult to injury in country after country. The entire continent falls into the dungeon of economic stagnation.

Year after year go by without any discernible improvement on the horizon. All of a sudden, half-a-billion people have no reason to believe in a better tomorrow.

To me, and to anyone who had the opportunity to see first hand what life was like in Communist Europe, this is a painful deja-vu experience. One generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of unlimited opportunities to hundreds of millions of people from Saxony to Sakhalin, new skies have descended over the former Soviet empire. The part of it that remained under the Russian sphere now struggle with political instability and an economy that seems to be moving backwards.

The countries that chose the European Union for their future are not in much better shape. They are now part of a bigger economy that may have elevated them to a higher standard of living, but is now keeping them from further growth. If anything, people all over Europe now have to worry that their children and grandchildren will not be able to lead a more prosperous life than they have.

A new era – the same stagnation.

Industrial poverty, for short.

The insights of this long-term trend are slowly spreading. While 2014 has been the year of dashed hopes for a recovery, it looks like 2015 might be the year of painful insights. Those are coming little by little, slowly spreading from writer to writer, from analyst to analyst. A good example of someone who seems to be joining the ranks of the frustrated yet insightful is Peter Kohli, who writes for NASDAQ about Greece:

On November 13th, I wrote an article on this website on how to take advantage of a possible turnaround in the Greek economy, because of certain positive reports I had read. However, it seems that things have changed rather quickly and that the Presidential elections there have been moved up to next week, beginning on December 17th.

The lack of steady economic recovery is taking a political toll on the country. This is not surprising – the channels between politics and the economy are strong in Europe’s welfare states, where government is promising to cater to almost every need people may have. During the fall from relative prosperity in 2007 to the dark, frustrating dungeons of economic depression in 2012, Greek voters expressed their very deeply felt dissatisfaction with their government by voting for two radical and fundamentally anti-democratic parties: Syriza with its Hugo Chavez-style bolivarian socialist platform, and Golden Dawn, the first openly Nazi party to take seats in a European parliament since the 1930s.

Earlier this year it looked like there might be a recovery under way in Greece. However, as more data came online, it quickly became clear that this was merely a transition from depression to stagnation, an insight that very likely has made its way into the hallways of Greek political power. Alas, the election concerns that Kohli writes about. Back to his article:

Ordinarily this would not be a problem, except that there are no candidates for the post yet. In Greece, the election of a president is done by the legislators, who need a supermajority – which they don’t have. If after three successive elections they fail to install a candidate, a general election will be called, and here is where the real problem lies. Currently, the far left anti-austerity party, Syriza, is way ahead in the polls and they are promising to basically roll back nearly all the plans to put the country back on the path of prosperity instituted by the current government.

Well, that path is not exactly a path. It is more of a picture on the wall. But that is a minor point here. Let’s listen to Kohli’s conclusion:

This sent shivers down the spines of many investors, causing the ATHEX Composite Index (GD) to plummet 12.78% on December 9th, another 1% the following day, and then down a further 7.35% the next. Subsequently, the only single-country Greece ETF (GREK), has been hit hard and is down a whopping 39.28% YTD. After making some significant positive steps, I thought the Greeks were on their way back, but this is another Greek tragedy in the making.

It is indeed. If the Greeks do elect Syriza, there is a not-insignificant risk of two major crises forming a perfect storm:

  • The attempt to roll back austerity will lead to the only thing worse than those policies, namely reckless tax hikes; an abandonment of EU-imposed austerity could also lead to a Greek euro exit, with currency free-fall and massive inflation as a result; the economy would be hurled back into depression; and
  • The Nazis in Golden Dawn will not tolerate a government they would consider to be downright Communist; with their penchant for “creative” extra-parliamentary politics, and their deep support among the armed forces and the police, this would pose a direct threat to Greek democracy.

Europe needs to choose between the welfare state and prosperity. Irrefutable evidence shows they cannot get both. The question is: what will it take for them to realize the terms of the choice? The Greek situation may be extreme, but it is extreme in quantity, not in quality. The architecture for a similar development is present in several other European countries: Spain, Portugal, France…

Europe’s Shortsighted Fiscal Policy

In a few articles recently I have pointed to some evidence of an emerging economic recovery in Spain and Greece. This is not a return to anything like normal macroeconomic conditions, but more a stagnation at a depressed level of economic activity. To call it a “recovery” is a stretch, but given the desperate circumstances of the past few years, an end to the depression is almost like a recovery.

The transition from a depression with plunging GDP, vanishing jobs and overall an economy in tailspin, to stagnation where nothing gets neither better nor worse, is in fact a verification of my long-standing theory. Europe has entered a new era of permanent stagnation – an era best described as industrial poverty – and is slowly but steadily becoming a second-tier economy on the global stage. The path into that dull future is paved with decisions made by political leaders, both at the EU level and in national governments. While they do have the power to actually return Europe to global prosperity leadership, they choose not to use that power. Instead, their economic policies continue to destroy the opportunities for growth, prosperity and full employment.

In fact, Europe’s leaders have the opportunity on a daily basis to choose which way to go. The difference is made in their responses to the economic situation in individual EU member states. Let us look at two examples.

First out is an article from Euractiv a month ago:

Greece is “highly unlikely” to end its eurozone bailout programme without some new form of assistance that will require it to meet targets, a senior EU official said on Monday (3 November). “A completely clean exit is highly unlikely,” the official told reporters, on condition of anonymity. “We will have to explore what other options there are. Whatever options we may be adopting, it will be a contractual relationship between the euro area institutions and the Greek authorities,” the official said.

How will the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund respond to this? Will they continue to impose the same austerity mandates that they began forcing upon Greece four years ago? Back to Euractiv:

The eurozone and IMF bailout support of €240 billion began in May 2010. Greece is in negotiation with EU institutions and the International Monetary Fund ahead of the expiry of its bailout package with the European Union on 31 December. Athens has said it wants its bailout to finish when EU funding stops, though the IMF is scheduled to stay through to early 2016. The EU official said he expected eurozone ministers and Greece to decide on how best to help Athens at a meeting of finance ministers in Brussels on 8 December.

If the EU decides to continue with the same type of bailout program, thus continuing to demand government spending cuts and tax hikes, then their response to this particular situation will continue the economic policies that keep Europe on its current path into perpetual industrial poverty.

The second example, France, also presents Europe’s political leadership with a fork-in-the-road kind of choice. From the EU Observer:

France’s finance minister cut the country’s deficit forecast for 2015 on Wednesday (3 November) adding that Paris will be well within the EU’s 3 percent limit by 2017. Michel Sapin told a press conference that he had revised France’s expected deficit down to 4.1 percent from the 4.3 percent previously forecast, as a consequence of extra savings worth €3.6 billion announced by Sapin in October.

That sounds good, but what is the reason for this improved forecast – and, as always with optimistic outlooks in Europe, can we trust it?

The extra money does not come from additional spending cuts but instead from lower interest expenses from servicing France’s debts, a reduction in its contributions to the EU budget, and extra tax revenues from a clampdown on tax evasion and a new tax on second homes. “We have revised the 2015 deficit … without touching the fundamentals of French economic policy,” Sapin told reporters.

This also means they have done their debt revision without seeing a change for the better in “the fundamentals” of the French economy. In other words, no stronger growth outlook, no sustainable improvement in business investments or job creation. As a matter of fact, a closer look at the measures that Mr. Sapin refers to reveals a frail, temporary improvement that will not put France on the right side in any meaningful macroeconomic category:

  • A lower interest rate on French government debt is almost entirely the work of the European Central Bank and its irresponsible money-printing; the French are paying lower interest rates on ten-year treasury bonds than we do here in the United States, but that will last only for as long as investors remain confident in the ECB’s version of Quantitative Easing; interest rates will quickly start rising again once that confidence is shattered – and it will be shattered as soon as investors realize that, unlike in the United States, the European economy will not start growing again;
  • Reduced French EU contributions come at the expense of other countries and likely won’t last very long; as soon as other countries have grown impatient with the French, they will force Paris to increase its contributions again; besides, this “reduced EU contributions” thing is basically just an accounting trick – effectively it means that the EU has reduced their demands on how much France needs to cut its deficit to be “compliant”;
  • A new second-home tax is a tax increase to which taxpayers will make the necessary adjustments; they will move from owning a home to renting one or to extended-stay vacations at luxury hotels; once that adjustment reaches a critical point the French government will have lost the new revenue and their hopes of being “compliant” with the EU deficit requirement will fade away.

If the French government spent all the political and legislative efforts that went into these measures, on structural reforms to the French government, then France would be en route to a major improvement in growth, jobs creation, business investments and the standard of living of their citizens. But that is not going to happen. All they do is try to comply with the same old statist rules that have forced them to balance their budget – and save their welfare state – instead of promoting the prosperity of their people.

There is a painful shortsightedness in European fiscal policy, one that almost entirely prevents the political leadership of that continent to look beyond the next fiscal year. It is time for them to stop, raise their eyes to the horizon and think about where they want their continent to be ten years from now.

If they don’t, I can surely say where they are going to be: in an era of industrial poverty, colored by three shades of grey, where children are destined to – at best – live a life no better than what their parents could accomplish. Think Argentina since the decline and fall of their 15 years of global economic fame.

Think Eastern Europe under Soviet rule.

More Signs of Spanish Recovery

It is very easy to establish that Europe’s economy is stuck in a state of deep, solid stagnation. As I have explained recently, you have to look carefully to find any exceptions to that rule. However, those exceptions exist in the form of Greece and Spain. So far neither country has reached a state of real recovery – so far their economies have elevated themselves out of the deepest part of a depression, but their economies have so far only risen to the same state of stagnation that has slowly but steadily spread to the entire continent.

That is not to say Spain and Greece can’t do better. They can. To find out more about their economies I decided to review the value-added side of their economies. For those of you who are not macroeconomic nerds, there are three ways to calculate GDP: the income approach, the expenditure approach and the value added approach. The third is the least commonly used one, mostly because it does not say very much about the two major forms of activity in an economy such as the European: private consumption and government spending. However, value added can tell us a great deal about what industries are flourishing and which ones are doing poorly.

The following four industries represent almost 40 percent of the Greek economy:

VA Greece

Correction: the industry labeled “Tourism etc” should really be “Wholesale trade, tourism etc”.

This is unfortunately not the image of an economy in steady recovery. Manufacturing, which is only responsible for nine percent of the added value in the Greek economy, is definitely in a state of stagnation; if all the talk about an exports renaissance in Europe were true, Greek manufacturing would be surging.

Instead, it is “Wholesale trade, tourism, etc” that is on a clear trajectory to recovery.  Producing 22 percent of the value added, this industry is labor intensive and close to consumers. The sustained improvement in activity is encouraging and has a potential for spreading its upturn to other sectors. First and foremost, it could mean that the young in Greece, whose chances of finding a job – any job – is the worst in the industrialized world, might regain some sort of faith in the future. That would be good for the long-term stability of both the economy and the Greek democracy.

That said, the figure of the Greek economy also shows that the other major industries are still in decline – or at least were in decline through the second quarter of this year. Greece needs a lot more to regain some of its status as an industrialized economy with a future.

Things look a bit different in Spain:

VA Spain

Together, these four industries are responsible for 46 percent of the total value produced in the Spanish economy. The three recovering industries represent 38 percent of total value added, a share big enough to positively affect the rest of the economy.

Adding to the cautious optimism about the Spanish economy is the fact that the growth rate of value added in two of the three recovering industries is actually accelerating. Manufacturing saw accelerating growth in five consecutive quarters:

2013Q1 2013Q2 2013Q3 2013Q4 2014Q1 2014Q2
Professional -1.61% -0.80% 0.23% 1.97% 1.49% 2.23%
Wholesale, Tourism etc -2.45% -0.64% 1.07% 1.35% 1.69% 2.83%
Manufacturing -3.33% -0.71% -0.08% 0.76% 1.83% 1.29%
Construction -7.89% -8.46% -7.68% -6.87% -7.71% -3.15%

It deserves to be repeated that in total, the Spanish economy is still very much in recession mode. Austerity is still a real fiscal-policy threat, and the declining euro-zone interest rates pose a threat in terms of renewed financial speculation. However, the sectorial recovery has enough momentum that if it is allowed to continue, it will give the Spanish economy a reasonable shield against moderate negative shocks.

That said, should austerity again come to define fiscal policy at the levels it saw in 2012, there is a substantial risk that the recovering industries will fall back into recession mode. They will then pull the entire economy back down into the hole of depression.

Bottom line: Greece is far from out of its depression, farther than a cursory analysis would show. Spain on the other hand is worth watching closely.

Job Growth in Spain and Greece

In a couple of articles recently I have noted that Greece and Spain seem to be breaking the ranks of economic stagnation in Europe. While we wait for Eurostat to release third-quarter GDP data, let us take a look at what has happened on the job front in those two countries.

Let us, first of all, make one thing clear: a recovery as traditionally defined in the macroeconomics literature is not necessarily a recovery from a crisis of the kind Europe is now stuck in. This crisis is structural – permanent by default – and it will take a permanent change in the structure that perpetuates the crisis in order to end it. We may see an improvement in economic activity without such changes, but that improvement will not be strong enough to actually recover these economies.

A real recovery means a permanent elevation of economic activity above the two-percent growth threshold. Greece and Spain are far away from that threshold – even if they occasionally hit it in one quarter, it does not mean that they have recovered.

That said, there is one area where the Greek and Spanish economies are at least showing some resiliency: the job market. Analyzing Eurostat employment data we find quite a few interesting factoids.

Both Greece and Spain saw stronger job growth in Q2 2014 than the euro zone as a whole. In Greece the total number of employed persons grew by 1.58 percent over the previous quarter; in Spain the increase was 2.37 percent. For the 18-country euro area as a whole, job growth was a modest 1.21 percent.

In Q1 2014 total Greek employment increased by 0.11 percent, while Spain saw a 1.07-percent decline. Both numbers beat the euro zone where total employment fell by 1.57 percent over the previous quarter, Q4 2013.

Annually, the improvement is not quite as impressive. The Greek economy only grew total employment by 0.1 percent in Q2 2014 over Q2 2013. For Spain, the number was better at 1.1 percent, clearly beating the euro zone’s 0.3 percent. But both Greece and Spain lost jobs in the first quarter over same quarter previous year: employment was down 0.6 percent in Greece and 0.5 percent in Spain, while euro-zone employment expanded by 0.2 percent.

Nevertheless, looking back, the Greek economy has clearly been moving in the “right” direction for some time. Their annual quarter-over-quarter employment numbers have been improving for five quarters in a row now. This means four quarters of smaller and smaller decline, and again one quarter with an improvement year-to-year. The Spanish economy has seen a similar trend, though not quite as pronounced as in Greece.

The euro zone, by contrast, is not exhibiting any clear job-creation trend. Year to year, its quarterly employment numbers vary within a narrow band: from a decline of one percent to 0.4 percent growth. This verifies that the Greek and Spanish economies are bucking the trend, and this in turn calls for a deeper analysis of why that is happening. Furthermore, it means finding out whether or not it is realistic to expect the improvement trend to continue.

There is more good news for Greece and Spain: both countries have been able to turn around, or almost turn around, the employment situation for their young. In the age group 15-24, Greece has again seen five straight quarters of improving numbers: three quarters of a slowdown in job losses and two straight quarters, Q1 and Q1 2014, of actual growth in youth employment. For Spain, the trend is again not as pronounced – young Spaniards are still losing jobs – but at least situation is not worsening nearly as fast now as it did in 2012. For Q1 2014 Spanish youth employment fell by 4.7 percent; for Q2 2014 it fell by 1.2 percent. By contrast, the first two quarters of 2013 the decline was 14.7 and 12.4 percent, respectively.

In this area the euro zone is still very much in trouble. Consider these changes, quarterly year-over-year, to youth employment in the 18 euro-zone countries:

2013 2014
Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4 Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4
Euro-18 youth employment change -3.94% -3.05% -2.88% -2.71% -3.01% -2.75%

As soon as third-quarter GDP data is out we will take a close look at them. Then we will get a good opportunity to asks whether or not Greece and Spain are indeed recovering, or if their job improvement numbers are merely a reflection of the end of the harshest austerity measures known to free men (outside Sweden) since the 1930s.

Eurostat Confirms GDP Stagnation

European third-quarter GDP growth data is beginning to make its way out in the public. What we have seen so far is just more of the same new normal – the same new stagnated way of life in industrial poverty.

Starting from the aggregate level, Eurostat’s third-quarter growth report says that the EU-28 grew at 1.3 percent per year in Q3 of 2014 over the same quarter 2013. The euro zone’s growth rate was half-a-percentage point lower at 0.8. This difference is the same as over the past few years: the last quarter where the euro zone grew faster than the entire EU was in Q1 of 2011. It shows that austerity is still taking a tougher toll on Europe’s core countries than its non-euro members on the outer rim.

Or, to make the same argument from the other side: if you are a European welfare state, it pays to keep your own currency.

The growth numbers for the EU and the euro zone are poor in and by themselves. By not even coming close to two percent per year, Europe is not even able to reproduce its own standard of living. But even worse is the fact that the U.S. economy grew by more than two percent annually for the second quarter in a row: 2.3 percent in Q3 of 2014, compared to 2.6 percent in Q2 of 2014. This growth disparity is slowly becoming a self-reinforcing phenomenon: when global investors see that the U.S. economy is growing while the Europeans are standing still, they choose to reallocate their investments to the United States. That way investments and new jobs go to where investments and new jobs are already going.

But does not that mean that the U.S. economy will run into inflation problems that, in turn, will even out the differences between the United States and Europe? No, not necessarily. In fact, that is a very unlikely scenario. We are now rising to become the global leader in producing energy, with costs far below those of European countries. Right-to-work states offer a union-free manufacturing environment, something that, e.g., Volkswagen successfully took advantage of when they opened their new plant in Tennessee. The large US-only Passat they build there is a runaway sales success, $7,000 cheaper and selling ten times more (100K units per year) than its German-built predecessor.

Long-term, it looks like manufacturing is making its way back to the United States. This does not bode well for Europe, whose exporting manufacturing industry has, basically, been the only part of the economy that has not sunken into the three shades of gray that is industrial poverty. That European manufacturing is in trouble is well proven by the Eurostat report, according to which Germany has seen a decline in growth for two quarters in a  row: now down to 1.2 percent on an annual basis.

Another supposedly big manufacturing economy, France, barely finished the third quarter with growth at all: 0.4 percent over Q3 of 2013. Austria’s growth is also dwindling, with 0.3 percent this quarter compared to 0.5 in Q2 and 0.9 in Q1.

The only real positive news is that the Greek economy showed annual growth for the second quarter in a  row – at 1.4 percent this quarter – with growth numbers improving steadily for a year now. Spain also shows positive growth, 1.6 percent, with a similar upward long-term trend.

Neither the Greek nor the Spanish number is anything to write home about, but it looks like the two countries are slowly recovering from the bad austerity beating they took in 2012 and 2013. It is an extremely hard journey back for both of them, though, especially for Greece which lost one quarter of its economy to destructive austerity policies. The welfare states of both Spain and Greece have now been recalibrated, so that government budgets paying for the welfare states will balance at a much lower employment level than before. This means, effectively, that government will begin to net-tax the economy and thereby cool off a growth trend long before full employment is restored.

This structural problem is entirely unknown to Europe’s lawmakers – and, frankly, to almost every economist on the planet. I defined the problem in my book Industrial Poverty; if unsolved, this problem will guarantee permanent economic stagnation in Europe for, well, ever.

That said, I don’t want to spoil the fun for Greek and Spanish families who are now seeing the first glimpse of daylight after a long, horrible nightmare. Let them celebrate today; tomorrow they will still be living in industrial poverty.

Flat Retail Sales Confirm Stagnant GDP

Retail trade is one of the better indicators of how an economy is doing. It is an immediate “gauge” of both confidence and private finances of consumers. Therefore, given the overall stagnant nature of the European economy, the latest report on retail trade from Eurostat has some valuable information in it:

The 1.3% decrease in the volume of retail trade in the euro area in September 2014, compared with August 2014, is due to falls of 2.2% for the non-food sector and 0.1% for “Food, drinks and tobacco”, while automotive fuel rose by 0.9%. In the EU28, the 1.2% decrease in retail trade is due to a fall of 2.1% for the non-food sector, while “Food, drinks and tobacco” remained stable and automotive fuel increased by 0.4%. The highest increases in total retail trade were registered in Malta (+1.0%), Luxembourg (+0.9%), Hungary and Slovakia (both +0.7%), and the largest decreases in Germany (-3.2%), Portugal (-2.5%) and Poland (-2.4%).

Month-to-month changes are not that important. The one detail here to note, though, is the big contraction in Germany. It is a small but noteworthy sign that the German economy, as this blog has reported before, is leaving a period of exports-driven growth and returning to the new European normal, namely stagnation.

The Eurostat memo also reported annual data:

The 0.6% increase in the volume of retail trade in the euro area in September 2014, compared with September 2013, is due to rises of 0.9% for “Food, drinks and tobacco”, of 0.6% for the non-food sector and of 0.5% for automotive fuel. In the EU28, the 1.0% increase in retail trade is due to rises of 1.5% for the non-food sector and 1.2% for “Food, drinks and tobacco”, while automotive fuel fell by 0.2%. The highest increases in total retail trade were observed in Luxembourg (+12.3%), Estonia (+9.1%) and Bulgaria (+5.6%), while decreases were recorded in Finland (-3.2%), Poland (-1.8%), Denmark and Germany (both -0.8%).

Again Germany shows up on the negative side, reinforcing the impression that the largest economy in Europe is no longer its locomotive.

On the upside, there is one interesting detail worth noting. Greece has experienced three months in a row of annual, inflation-adjusted retail sales increases: four percent in June, 4.6 percent in July and 7.4 percent in August.

Is this an early sign that the Greek depression is coming to an end? Let’s hope so.

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Europe’s Economic Blame Game

Back in college I had a friend who blamed a cut in Swedish government-provided student loans on Moammar Ghadaffi. It was a tongue-in-cheek exercise, of course, designed to prove that if you want to, you can make any argument credible so long as you can make people believe your chain of cause and effect.

For some reason, that idea is widespread in politics, only there it is taken with the utmost seriousness. Political leaders can make the most remarkable connections between otherwise totally unrelated events. This is particularly true in economics and policy. The latest example is the stubborn European recession and what it is blamed on. Reports the EU Observer:

The European Commission lowered its growth forecasts for the EU and the eurozone area, blaming the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, and urging governments to do more to spur investments. According to the Autumn forecast growth in the EU is now expected to be 1.3 percent of GDP this year, compared to 1.6 percent projected in spring, while the eurozone economy is to grow by only 0.8 percent, compared to the earlier projection of 1.2 percent.

I have lost count of how many times that European forecasters have had to adjust their forecasts downward. Not to brag (actually, yes, to brag…) I have not changed my forecast at all since I formulated Europe’s current problem more than two years ago. That problem is a structurally unaffordable welfare state combined with policies that try to preserve the welfare state inside a tax base that is structurally incapable of paying for it. This structural imbalance keeps the economy in a state of stagnation for an indefinite future.

Industrial poverty, for short.

The EU’s adjusted outlook once again confirms that I am right. The EU Observer again:

For 2015, the outlook is also pessimistic: the EU economy is expected to grow by 1.5 percent (down from 2 percent predicted in spring) and the eurozone by 1.1 percent (compared to the spring forecast of 1.7 percent). EU “growth” commissioner Jyrki Katainen admitted that forecasts are difficult to trust, especially since all other international institutions publishing economic forecasts “have been more often wrong than right” because there are so many variables on growth, employment, and investments.

Oh dear, there is so much to factor in… Seriously – it is the job of the economist to separate what matters from what does not matter, and then make his forecasts for the former while not being distracted by the latter.

This kind of excuse would not pass for a serious contribution here in the United States. But the Europeans are also trying to blame their years-long, endless recession on new events. Another article in the EU Observer:

Germany is on the brink of recession after recording its weakest export levels for five years. Data published by the Federal Statistics Office on Thursday (9 October) indicated that exports slumped by 5.8 percent between July and August, the sharpest monthly fall since 2009, at the height of the financial crisis. Imports also fell by 1.3 percent, suggesting that German consumers are also losing faith in the country’s economy. In a statement, the statistics office blamed late-falling summer vacations in some German regions and the Ukraine crisis for the fall in exports and imports.

But of course, there is no problem with the high taxes in Germany, or the rising energy costs as they close their nuclear reactors and try to rely on windmills instead… As share of GDP, taxes in Germany have increased from 42.6 percent ten years ago to 44.5 percent in 2013. This places Germany 12th among the 28 EU member states, and just a hair below the 45.3-percent EU average. But being average does not cut it when times are tough, it is a buyer’s market and the consumers who can actually afford to buy things are far away from your own country’s borders.

And, as noted, exports no longer serve as the locomotive of the German economy. Berlin simply cannot continue to suppress domestic demand for budget-balancing and ill-conceived energy reform reasons.

Back to the story about Germany:

The dismal statistics are the latest sign that Germany is facing an economic slowdown. In August, the ZEW think-tank’s index of financial market confidence, a trusted indicator of German economic sentiment, hit its lowest level since December 2012. The fall was attributed to the weak eurozone and fears about the EU’s ongoing sanctions battle with Russia. According to Eurostat, the EU’s data office, Germany’s output fell by 0.2 percent between April and June, after expanding by 0.8 percent in the first three months of 2014.

So what is the prevailing advice for how to get out of this state of endless stagnation?

On Thursday, four of the country’s top economic institutes urged chancellor Angela Merkel to increase public spending in a bid to stoke the economic engine. “On the spending side, public spending should be increased in those areas which can potentially boost growth,” the IFO institute in Munich, DIW of Berlin, RWI of Essen and IWH of Halle said in a joint report.

How fortunate that four of Germany’s most prominent think tanks all agree with each other. One might wonder why they need four think tanks of they all agree on something so profoundly important as how to revive the economy. Not one of them expresses concern that Germany might need just a tiny bit more economic freedom. On that note, if they are going to expand government spending without running budget deficits – what is the point in taking money away from the private sector and dole it out again through government? Private-sector activity is going to be further depressed by higher taxes: either you take away from what they spend or you depress their cash-flow safety margins and force them to depress spending in order to restore those safety margins.

There are two reasons why Germany cannot grow without exports. The first is high taxes, which up until 2012 were higher than in Greece. The second is uncertainty about the future. German consumers and at least smaller entrepreneurs have adjusted their spending downward on a permanent basis, simply because they feel overall less confident and less optimistic about the future. As Keynes explained in Chapter 16 of his General Theory, a depression of economic confidence is not a temporary matter:

An act of individual saving means — so to speak — a decision not to have dinner to-day. But it does not necessitate a decision to have dinner or to buy a pair of boots a week hence or a year hence or to consume any specified thing at any specified date. Thus it depresses the business of preparing to-day’s dinner without stimulating the business of making ready for some future act of consumption. It is not a substitution of future consumption-demand for present consumption-demand, — it is a net diminution of such demand.

That downward adjustment in demand will become the new normal until consumers and entrepreneurs has a reason to become more optimistic about the future. Evidently, that is not happening in Germany.

Not in Greece either, by the way. From Euractiv:

Greece is “highly unlikely” to end its eurozone bailout programme without some new form of assistance that will require it to meet targets, a senior EU official said on Monday (3 November). “A completely clean exit is highly unlikely,” the official told reporters, on condition of anonymity. … The eurozone and IMF bailout support of €240 billion began in May 2010. Greece is in negotiation with EU institutions and the International Monetary Fund ahead of the expiry of its bailout package with the European Union on 31 December. … The official gave no details of what new aid might look like, but policymakers have said that the most likely tool is an Enhanced Conditions Credit Line, or ECCL, from the European Stability Mechanism. That means Greece would be under detailed surveillance from the European Commission, the EU executive, for the duration of the credit line. “There needs to be money available for drawing on,” the official said.

Money available for spending items that Greek taxpayers cannot afford. So long as those spending promises remain in place, Greece cannot regain its fiscal independence unless they massively raise taxes. That, in turn, would be like begging for an even deeper depression.

At least in the Greek case nobody is blaming the Klingon High Council for their bad economic situation. But unless the Europeans step up to the plate and take responsibility for their own economic failure, the entire continent will continue to dwell in the shadow realm between the economic wasteland and industrial poverty.

Bad Economic News, Part 1

Yankees baseball legend Yogi Berra coined the proverbial phrase “It ain’t over ’til it’s over”. That is certainly true about the European economic crisis. This past week saw a crop of bad news from the Old World. Nothing very dramatic – and certainly nothing that should surprise regular readers of this blog – but nevertheless bad news. In this first of two parts, let’s look at a report from the EU Observer:

The eurozone appears to have come back onto the markets’ radar amid low inflation, poor economic news from Germany, and Greece’s bailout exit plans. Greece’s long-term borrowing costs went above 8 percent on Thursday (16 October) – their highest for almost a year – as investors took fright at the fragile political situation in the country. The government in Athens has tried to shore up popular support by suggesting it will exit its bailout programme with the International Monetary fund more than a year early.

There is an important background here. The bailout program had three components:

1. The Greek government will do everything in its power to combine a balanced budget with protecting as much as possible of its welfare state against the economic depression;

2. In return for the Greek government’s tax increases and spending cuts, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank provided loans that kept the Greek government afloat cash-wise;

3. The only metric used to measure the success of bailout policies is the stability of a balanced government budget.

If GDP did not grow, if unemployment was at 30 percent, if more than half the young in Greece had no job to go to… none of that mattered. As a result, there has been no structural improvement of the Greek economy; government has not reduced its burden on the private sector – quite the contrary, in fact. Welfare systems have been reduced, but higher taxes have prevented welfare recipients from transitioning into self sufficiency.

As a result, the social situation in Greece is almost unbearable. The political reaction has come in the form of a surge for parties on the extreme flanks of the political spectrum. In my book Industrial Poverty I explain in detail what happened in Greece, what brought the country down from the heights of European prosperity to permanent stagnation. Today, sadly, the country is little more than a macroeconomic wasteland.

It is with this in mind that one should approach the news that Greece is considering leaving the bailout program. The coalition government is under enormous pressure to save the nation itself, to keep parliamentary democracy in place and to inject some sort of life into the economy. If they fail either of two extreme political movements will take over – the Chavista communists in Syriza or the Nazis in Golden Dawn.

International investors know this and are understandably scared. In their mind the bailout is the least of available evils; in reality, as I explain in my book, the attempts at balancing the budget and saving the welfare state in the midst of the crisis are the very policies that keep Greece from recovering; weak signs of a minor recovery earlier this year have yet to materialize into anything other than the “beaten dog” syndrome often following protracted periods of austertiy.

This is the very reason why Greece is now considering leaving the bailout program. They cannot continue forever to try to muddle through with an economy deadlocked in depression and a democracy so fragile that it has brought the first Nazis into a parliament in Europe for the first time since World War II.

However, as the EU Observer explains, the Greek government is caught between a rock and a hard place – as are other hard-hit euro zone economies:

But the recent announcement spooked investors, unconvinced that Greece can stand alone. Long-term borrowing costs also jumped in the weak periphery states, Spain, Italy, and Portugal. The market jitters – while not comparable to the height of the eurozone crisis in 2011 and 2012 – come as the eurozone’s main economies are once again at odds over policy responses.

France also belongs on that list, primarily for its typically European attempt at leaving the bailout program. Its government tried to leave the bailout path for a left turn into the quagmire of government expansionism. Thinking that more government spending, on top of the largest government spending in the world, could in fact bring about a recovery, the French socialists who won the 2012 elections scoffed at the EU balanced-budget rules and went full speed ahead with their government-expansionist agenda.

Two years later that agenda has hit a brick wall. Massive tax increases, supposed to pay for some of the new government spending, have only resulted in an exodus of brain power and entrepreneurship. The French GDP is standing more still than the Eiffel Tower.

In fact, the EU Observer notes,

France and Italy are fighting a rearguard action for more flexibility saying budget slashing will condemn them to further low growth. Paris is on collision course with both Berlin and the European Commission after having indicated that it wants an extra two years to bring its budget deficit to below 3 percent of GDP. Italy, meanwhile, has submitted a national budget for 2015 which brings the country to the edge of breaking the rules.

The French challenge to the budget-balance rules compounds the uncertainty emanating from the talks in Athens about a Greek bailout exit. It is more than a theoretical possibility that at least one of these countries leaves the euro zone in the next two years, and does so for a combination of political and economic reasons. That would be an institutional change to the European economy – and really the global economy – of such proportions that no traditional quantitative analysis can render justice to a forecast of its effects. It is therefore entirely logical that global investors are growing more uncertain and as a result demand higher risk premiums.

As the icing on the uncertainty cake, informed investors know that Marine Le Pen may very well become France’s next president. If she wins in 2017 her first order of business is in all likelihood going to be to exit the euro zone and reintroduce the franc. On the one hand that could be an “orderly” exit; on the other hand it would have ripple effects throughout the southern rim of the euro zone to the point where the very future of the common currency is in grave danger.

In summary: mounting uncertainty about the future of the euro is being mixed with growing uncertainty about the macroeconomic performance of the member states of the currency union.

Stay tuned for the second part about the bad news out of Europe.

Ebola and Socialized Health Care

When government creates a spending program, it also makes a promise to taxpayers. So long as the sum total of those promises is small and government limited to protecting life, liberty and property, we have good reasons to believe that government can deliver on its promises. However, the more promises government makes, the fewer of those promises it will be able to keep. As government promises reach into income redistribution and services like health care, the distance between promise and provision grows into a chasm.

That chasm has opened up across Europe. As millions upon millions of Europeans have discovered, a broken government promise is not just a theoretical construct. It is harsh reality. First they were lured into dependency on government by lavish promises of being taken care of, then government walked away from its promises  – and did so without offering people a route to an alternative.

The price is paid by the people. As government fails to deliver as promised, and taxes and regulations supporting the government monopoly all remain in place, people have nowhere else to go but down. A permanent blanket of stagnation slowly descends upon the economy and a new form of industrial poverty replaces prosperity and a bright future.

This is, again, not just theory. It is harsh reality. When government asks people to trust it, and then fails to provide that trust, even ebola can slip through the cracks of the crumbling tax-funded promises. A story from the New York Times offers a chilling example:

The case is particularly worrisome to health experts because Spain is a developed country that is considered to possess the kind of rigorous infection control measures that should prevent disease transmission in the hospital. Although the Ebola epidemic has killed hundreds of doctors and nurses in West Africa, health officials in Europe and the United States have reassured the public repeatedly that if the disease reached their shores, their health care systems would be able to treat patients safely, without endangering health workers or the public.

The story also suggests:

While the risk to hospital workers is thought to be far lower in developed countries, the infection of the Spanish nurse, along with the missteps in dealing with Ebola in Dallas, exposes weak spots in highly praised defense systems.

There is a major difference between the American and Spanish cases. In Dallas, health care workers approached the patient under the assumption that the U.S. government was right when, back in July, it assured Americans that there was no real risk that ebola would ever spread to the United States. Trusting their government, the health care professionals in Dallas used their professional skills as they have been trained, assuming that the people in charge of keeping our country safe were doing their job as promised.

Once the ebola case had been confirmed, however, our health care system, which still to a large degree is private and therefore has plenty of resources, went to work and contained what could have become a very serious outbreak.

Spain is a different case altogether. To begin with, the country has a virtually open border to northern Africa, with migrants coming daily across the narrowest stretch the Mediterranean. It is comparatively easy to travel from the epicenter of the ebola outbreak to the southern coast of Spain. But more importantly, the Spanish health care system, unlike the American, has suffered major spending cuts in the last few years. In December last year The Economist observed similarities between cuts in government health monopolies in Greece and Spain, with the Greek cuts leading to…

dramatic increases in HIV, mental illness, TB and the return of malaria. Greece made its cuts two years earlier than Spain did, so their impact became evident sooner. But the situation in Spain is just as worrying, warns Helena Legido-Quigley of the [London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine], who fears that if the government doesn’t change course soon, similar outbreaks could very well happen in Spain.

Specifically, The Economist notices, Spanish health care spending…

was reduced by 13.7% in 2012 and by 16.2% in 2013 (including social services). Some regions imposed additional cuts as high as 10%. As a result a significant part of the Spanish population is excluded from basic health care, which could in turn lead to public-health problems for the entire population.

As part of the 2012 cuts, the Spanish government reduced tax subsidies for medicine, a measure that was also used in Greece. The effect of these cuts is that many people simply do not get the medicine they have been prescribed – since there are no private alternatives, people are locked in to a defaulting government monopoly. Because of the high taxes needed to fund the welfare state, few Spanish families have enough money to pay privately for what they have already paid for through taxes.

With resources at hospitals being tightened, access to health care rationed and a culture of austerity spreading through the entire health care system, it is not out of the realm to ask to what extent Spain is at risk of an ebola outbreak because its government made a promise to its people that it cannot afford to keep. As an example, the New York Times story cited earlier reports that in order to treat one single ebola patient, a hospital in Madrid turned an entire floor into a sealed-off isolation unit. In a health care system with tight resources, that means the hospital has to move numerous other patients to other units or even other hospitals. This in turn means increasing the number of patients per room, or (as in Sweden) putting patients in storage rooms, lunch rooms, corridors or even patient lunch cafeterias.

In a private health care system, the supply of resources is dynamic. It depends on the public need for health care and is funded through a multiple of sources, such as insurance plans, out-of-pocket payments and charitable donations. Competition and patient choice guarantee that, over time, there is always provision of health care for all patients.

By contrast, in a government health monopoly resources are static and rigidly dependent on how much taxes the legislature can squeeze out of the private sector. If, in theory, health care were the only thing government provided, it may not be an unbearable burden to taxpayers. However, a single-payer government health monopoly is the crown jewel of the welfare state, and therefore adds up to an excessive tax bill for the private sector.

The effect is inevitably a long-time economic decline and the kind of welfare-state crisis that Spain is now experiencing. The pressing question now is: can a rationed government health monopoly protect a modern, industrialized nation from a deadly disease?

EU Economy Going Nowhere

There is no better macroeconomic “health indicator” for an economy than private consumption. Not only is it the largest part of GDP, but private consumption also reflects well the overall sentiment of households. Since households are important spenders, taxpayers and workers all baked into one type of economic unit, the growth rate of private consumption is the best quick-check “wellness test” of an economy. (A more detailed understanding of the shape of an economy obviously requires a more detailed macroeconomic and microeconomic analysis.)

Since I have recently reported on how the European economic recovery has not materialized, I figured it would only be fair to perform a quick-check macroeconomic “wellness test”. Alas, I pulled private consumption data from Eurostat, and I made sure to get inflation-adjusted figures based on a price that is relatively distant in time. (If the index year is close in time there can be growth distortions based on the mere proximity to “year zero”.) I also selected quarterly data, which is not commonly used for this purpose. My motivation, though, is that if the quarterly data is not seasonally adjusted it allows for a more frequent communication of household sentiments.

You would expect this type of data to be available from every EU member state for every quarter you might want it. I often encounter that attitude from consumers of public policy research: somehow they assume that every piece of statistical information anyone could ever want is readily available within two clicks into the internet. That is not the case, though, and the reason is simple. Quality statistical material requires careful data collection, according to detailed and very rigid collection methods; it requires methodologically rigorous processing according to standards defined not just for this piece of information, but for every comparable piece of information in the world.

There are other methodological restrictions on statistical information that contribute to the production cost. We should actually take this as a sign of quality for the data we have access to; I always get suspicious when scholars claim to have produced large sets of quantitative information in short periods of time – it often leads to bombastic conclusions that later prove to be little more than a house of cards built on clay feet.

Anyway. Back to the European economy. For reasons of high quality standards and therefore reasonably high production costs for national accounts data, not every EU member state reports the kind of consumption data analyzed here. Figure 1 below reports real private consumption growth in 24 EU member states from 2002 through 2013:

Figure 1

C pr EU 24

The growth rates, again, are inflation-adjusted rates per quarter, over the same quarter the year before. This means that the blue line reports a rolling annual growth rate, updated quarterly. As such it helps us pinpoint business cycle swings with good accuracy. The  most obvious example is that private consumption nosedives in the second quarter of 2008: after having averaged an acceptable two percent per year from 2003 through 2007, private consumption literally came to a standstill over the next five years. From 2008 through 2012 the average growth rate was zero percent.

The difference may not seem like much, but for two reasons it would be wrong to draw that conclusion. First, a one-percent reduction in private consumption equals a decline in spending worth a bit over two million jobs in the EU-28 economy. This does not mean that two million Europeans automatically lose their jobs if households cut spending by one percent – the economy is more dynamic than that. But it does mean that if private businesses lose sales over a sustained period of time they cannot afford to keep all of their employees. At the macroeconomic level this eventually translates into, roughly, two million jobs per one percent private consumption (measured in current prices).

In other words, even seemingly small fluctuations in household spending can have major effects on the economy.

Secondly, sluggish private consumption means that the economy is not evolving. If the growth rate falls below two percent, then at least in theory consumers are no longer improving their standard of living. I explain in detail how this works in my book Industrial Poverty (out August 28); a very brief explanation is that it takes a certain level of sustained spending to maintain one’s standard of living. As products get better and other factors affect the quality of our consumption, we have to grow our outlays by a certain minimum rate just to make sure we keep our standard of living intact.

For the first half of the 12 years reported in Figure 1, households in the 24 selected EU member states managed to maintain their standard of living; on the other hand, for the second half of the period they did not maintain that standard. With an average growth rate of zero (adjusted for inflation) the theoretical loss of standard of living was two percent per year.

In addition to creating unemployment, this protracted sluggishness in household spending is a long-term prosperity downgrade for Europe’s consumers. What is even worse is that there are still no signs of a return to higher growth rates. While 2013 saw an average .8 percent growth in the EU-24 we discuss here, that came on the heels of ytwo years of negative growth (-0.6 percent). There was a similar, and bigger, uptick in 2010 (1.5 percent) that proved to be an anomaly compared to the two years before and after.

Furthermore, data for the first quarter of 2014, which is available for 20 of the 24 EU member states, shows a rise in inflation-adjusted private consumption in three countries only. While it is good to see a rise in Greece and Spain, which have been the hardest hit by the crisis (Austria is the third) this is far too isolated and far too small to be the turnaround many economists have hoped for.

More importantly, this is where the use of quarterly data can spook the careless observer. Spanish private consumption, which is up by 3.1 percent in the first quarter of this year, has a pattern of growing every other quarter. Since it was down 1.3 percent in the last quarter of 2013, this only means that the economy is on track with its historic path (which, sadly, means zero growth over the 16 quarters in 2010-2013). The rise in Greek private spending is part of a similar pattern, coming on the heels of a 2010-2013 average of -1.1 percent.

Bottom line, then, is that European households are unwilling or, more likely, unable to unleash that spending spree the European economy needs so badly. This should not surprise any regular reader of this blog, but it will in all likelihood be a surprise to those who live in the illusion that big government and the welfare state are the blessings that prosperity is built from.